Should You Apply to Law School Early Decision?

Let’s start with the basics.

What is early decision?

If you apply to a law school early decision (ED), you agree that you’ll go there if you get in. You can’t make this promise in good faith to more than one law school, so you’re only allowed to submit one early decision application at a time. If a school rejects you or defers you into the regular applicant pool—thus releasing you from your ED obligation—you can submit an early decision application to another school.

Early decision deadlines are often in the fall, though some schools, like Georgetown, let you apply ED as late as March. Schools sometimes promise to respond to ED applications more quickly; other schools don’t offer ED at all.

We’ve compiled information about ED deadlines for T21 schools in this spreadsheet.

How do you apply early decision?

You’ll apply to law school via LSAC. Some schools have separate applications for regular and early decision. Other schools have only one application with a question that asks if you’d like to apply ED.

What happens after you apply early decision?

Three things can happen after you apply ED: a school can accept you, a school can reject you, or a school can punt you into the regular applicant pool and release you from your ED commitment. The last scenario is common for applicants with below-average numbers. Schools may not feel the need to reject you yet, but they can’t accept you either until they see how the applicant pool shapes up.

What are the advantages of applying early decision?

Applying ED makes it slightly more likely that you will be admitted, especially if your GPA or LSAT score is equal to or above the school's median. Why? A few reasons.

  • The ED process lets schools lock in candidates who will pay full tuition.
  • The ED process lets schools lock in applicants who will support at least one of their medians.
  • The ED pool is smaller than the regular decision pool, so it may be easier to stand out.
  • Applying ED is a strong indication of your interest, so even if you get waitlisted, the admissions dean may turn to you before other waitlisted applicants.

There's one more small advantage: applying ED may expedite the review of your application.

How much does it help to apply early decision?

How much ED helps depends on where your LSAT scores and GPA lie relative to the school’s medians. Our data show that if your LSAT and GPA are both stronger or both weaker than the school’s, ED doesn’t give you a measurable boost. Applying early decision helps most for splitters: candidates who have one number (LSAT or GPA) at or above a school’s median and the other below.

For example, say your top-choice school has a median LSAT score of 160 and a median GPA of 3.5.

There may be exceptions to these conclusions. Some law schools, including Berkeley and Northwestern, offer automatic scholarships to all ED admits. In these cases, ED admission is probably more competitive than regular decision admission, and applying ED may not give you a large boost, but it’s unlikely to hurt your chances, either. Borderline ED applications will simply be kicked into the regular decision pool. (These applicants may still enjoy a small advantage, as they will have demonstrated their commitment to the school.)

What are the disadvantages of applying early decision?

Beyond the fact that ED limits your options, it will hinder your ability to negotiate for financial aid. Why? Because many students are able to negotiate for more aid by using offers from other schools as leverage. If you’re accepted to a school ED and therefore bound to go, you can’t say that you’re considering an offer of more aid from another school. In fact, admissions officers often look to their early decision pool to lock in a certain amount of revenue, knowing that ED admits will pay the sticker price.

Should you apply early decision?

If your LSAT score and GPA are both close to your top choice’s medians, or else on either side of them, and you’re willing to accept the possibility of no financial aid, then you should apply ED (assuming, of course, that your top choice offers it).

If your LSAT score and GPA are far below your top choice’s medians, you might consider a strategic ED application to a school of lower ranking. That is, you might apply ED to a slight reach instead of a major reach. Before you submit a strategic ED application, though, make sure you’re comfortable with the possibility of being accepted. You’ll be foregoing the chance of attending a better school, even if that better school accepts you. Whether or not this compromise is acceptable depends on your values. Do you want to maximize the chance of a good-enough outcome, or would you rather preserve the chance of a perfect outcome, no matter how unlikely?

If you haven’t done much research and you’re not comfortable with the possibility of committing yourself to a school before your results come in, you should not apply ED.

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